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Keep Jews Interesting: Its Time to Stop being Defined by Anti-Semitism

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Keep Jews Interesting: Its Time to Stop being Defined by Anti-Semitism
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  Religion Dispatches RELIGION DISPATCHESHISTORY/THEOLOGY  Keep Jews Interesting: It’s Time to Stop Being Defned by Anti-Semitism Oct 10, 2019, 12:12pmShaul Magid The recent publication of Bari Weiss' new book on anti-Semitism and "bedbug-gate" have emphasized the troubling place the Jewish community has found itself in, embodied by Jewish historian Arthur Hertzberg's proclamation that "The only thing more dangerous for Jews than anti-Semitism is no anti-Semitism." Rewire.News  has one purpose; to produce journalism in the public interest and in the service of democracy and justice. As a nonprofit, our work is uncompromised by advertising. We rely on readers like you tomake our award-winning reporting possible. Support Rewire.News  today with as little as $1. ×  Members of the Jewish community and their supporters hold a "Jews Say #CloseTheCamps" protest and vigil to demand an end to the Trump administration's detention of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers on August 11, 2019. MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images Of all the days in the Jewish year, Yom Kippur is the time when Jews seem drawn, either by obligation or guilt, to gather with other Jews and mark a day in which all appear to be equal. In contrast, Rosh Hashanah is a day of accountability and teshuva and thus all are not equal; some are better, some are worse, some repent, and some don’t. But Yom Kippur, as a day of atonement, it is about purication not rectication, as the Talmud teaches “the day itself atones.” As such, it oers an opportunity to think more carefully about things that are often troubling, and it should enable to us explore how we put the world together and how we, as a ewish community, understand where we are in this moment.Over the past few months, there have been a few incidents, thankfully not violent ones, that have brought to the surface a question that has dogged Jews for millennia. I will refer to two such incidents, and then explain why I think they should give us pause on a day which is truly Rewire.News  has one purpose; to produce journalism in the   public interest and in the service of democracy and justice. As a nonprofit, our work is uncompromised by advertising. We rely on readers like you tomake our award-winning reporting possible. Support Rewire.News  today with as little as $1. ×  about self-reection and purication. Both are unfortunately somewhat banal, but they point toward something more substantive. Bedbugs and a Bari book The rst is a tweet by a Georgetown professor in response to a report that the  New York Times oces were infested with bedbugs. The tweet consisted of ve words, “Bret Stephens is the bedbug.” This was ignored in the Twitter world until somehow Stephens, who was not tagged, found it and then wrote an email to its author and the dean of his university deriding the tweet and calling it oensive, even anti-Semitic. SUBSCRIBE TO OUR DAILY OR WEEKLY EMAIL Get the best writing about religion, politics, and culture, direct to your inbox. SUBSCRIBE The author of the tweet then tweeted Stephens’ email, causing a restorm on social media. Let’s forget for the moment that the author of the tweet, a media studies professor, said he had no idea Stephens was Jewish (neither did many other people, it seems), and that he meant it as a critique of Stephens’ views on the op-ed page, not of him as a person. Stephens responded in an op-ed the following week by drawing a connection between this ve-word tweet and the burning of the Warsaw ghetto when one Pole was overheard saying, “Oh look, the bedbugs are burning.” He suggested, in other words, that calling a Jew a bedbug, here in the United States in 2019, is somehow similar to watching people burn to death.The argument collapsed when people viewed the testimony of the Pole in context, collected in Emanuel Ringelblum’s Warsaw ghetto archives, and learned that the Pole in question was actually referring to real  bedbugs, as there was a bedbug infestation in Warsaw that, authorities surmised, began in the ghetto. But the point was made, and the context became irrelevant.The episode quickly died down in the dizzying news cycle, but the issue brought to the surface an open secret: We Jews have a love/hate relationship with anti-Semitism. What it is, why it exists, and who is guilty of it. Rewire.News  has one purpose; to produce journalism in the   public interest and in the service of democracy and justice. As a nonprofit, our work is uncompromised by advertising. We rely on readers like you tomake our award-winning reporting possible. Support Rewire.News  today with as little as $1. ×  The second event, a bit more elaborate, was the publication of a new book by  New York Times op-ed writer Bari Weiss, called  How to Fight Anti-Semitism,  followed by a widely read op-ed. I don’t want to dwell on the book itself, which I read with a fair amount of frustration, not because I didn’t like it—which I didn’t—but because this is such an important issue that requires careful and cautious thinking that I think was absent in the book.More interesting is the phenomenon that gave rise to the book, and others like it, and what its implications may be for 21st-century American Jews who are the most privileged community in the history of the Jewish diaspora, yet are still dogged by the fear of anti-Semitism. And I think we are literally tied up in knots over what to think or do about it. So, when a book like ow to Fight Anti-Semitism  comes out, we run to read it because we want to know the answer. But sadly, as Max Horkheimer and Samuel Flowerman noted in their book series Studies in rejudice , “Prejudice is one of the problems of our times for which everyone has a theory but no one an answer.”For American Jews, the problem is that anti-Semitism has become so ingrained, so much a part of our identity, that we need an answer not simply to know what it is, but to keep it alive in our own consciousness. The Jewish historian Arthur Hertzberg once said, “The only thing more dangerous for Jews than anti-Semitism is no anti-Semitism.” The absence of anti-Semitism would require Jews, most of whom have already abandoned religion as their primary form of Jewish identity, to gure out why they should remain Jews. When French philosopher ean-Paul Sartre said “the anti-Semite denes the Jew,” he was not as wrong as we’d like to think.So, many American Jews who are going about their lives in a state of what one might call low anxiety—perhaps the best we can hope for—are suddenly awakened when some professor inadvertently and jokingly refers to a public gure, who happens to be a Jew, as a bedbug, followed shortly after by the publication of a book about how anti-Semitism on the left, masquerading as anti-Israelism, is more dangerous than anti-Semitism on the right captured on video including the chant “Jews will not replace us.”Suddenly we wake up and take notice? Why is that? It’s much like the experience we all have when we see some horric accident; we don’t want to look, and yet we can’t take our eyes o it. We want anti-Semitism not to exist, but then we try desperately to nd it when it’s not in front Rewire.News  has one purpose; to produce journalism in the   public interest and in the service of democracy and justice. As a nonprofit, our work is uncompromised by advertising. We rely on readers like you tomake our award-winning reporting possible. Support Rewire.News  today with as little as $1. ×  of us, when it’s “disguised.” When we see it, we say, “Why do they hate us?” and when we don’t see it we say, “They must really   hate us but aren’t saying it.” ‘A grand unied theory of everything’ In her book, Weiss, quoting the historian of anti-Semitism Deborah Lipstadt, writes the following: “a philo-Semite is merely an anti-Semite who likes Jews.” On one level, we know what she means. Dening group identities, even positively, can be an expression of something negative, like in a stereotype: “Black people sure can dance!” or “Asian people are smart!” And the same can be said, one would surmise, of any group, such that saying something ostensibly positive about Black people or Asian people can still be racist.But Weiss doesn’t accept that. She continues, “[Anti-Semitism] is not just a form of hatred, one that happens to be directed against Jews rather than against lesbians or Koreans or left-handed people. It is a grand unied theory of everything.”  A grand unied theory of everything . This is where stu gets weird. If people who dislike Jews and people who like Jews come together in this “grand unied theory of everything,” and this is categorically dierent than any other form of group hatred, is this not simply another iteration of Jewish exceptionalism that we have promoted for millennia from the Hebrew Bible to today?It is, in a way, the dark side of chosenness. If we say, “God, who is the creator of the universe, chooses the Jews above all others,” and promote that view by pointing to holy scripture, is it surprising that some of those others will hold negative opinions of us? This is what Spinoza argued. If you think this sounds provocative, it’s actually sewn into our very tradition. The midrash, for example, states openly that the covenant at Sinai will evoke hatred in the gentiles. Or when the sages proclaim a general principle, “Esau hates Jacob,” meaning that Edom, or Christendom, hates the Jews. That is a proclamation, not an observation; it’s stated as doctrine, not circumstance.This is not to say that we Jews are responsible for anti-Semitism; it’s merely to point out that the sages knew quite well that the structure of how the Jews see themselves in the world would evoke a response, often negative. And of course, the whole argument is circular; the more the gentile hates the Jews, the clearer it is to the Jew that we are doing something right because the fallen world is not ready to hear the true word of God. Rewire.News  has one purpose; to produce journalism in the   public interest and in the service of democracy and justice. As a nonprofit, our work is uncompromised by advertising. We rely on readers like you tomake our award-winning reporting possible. Support Rewire.News  today with as little as $1. ×
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